Hardcore punk pioneers Bad Brains were an anomaly in 1979, and remain one still today. Easily one of the most ferocious bands in the history of American punk, the band offered fans something a bit different than what they were all used to. Not only did Bad Brains master the full-throttle speed of hardcore punk, but, super-skilled musicians that they were, they also managed to blend that unrelenting barrage of noise with such seemingly disparate musical influences as jazz fusion, reggae, and funk, creating a highly distinctive sound that no band has managed to match since. Not only that, but their best songs were all extremely well-written, and in a genre full of minimalist arrangements and nihilistic rants, their messages of spirituality and positive thinking made Bad Brains even more of a deviation from the norm. Over two decades, the band repeatedly split up, reunited, and split up again, issuing six studio albums, some live recordings, and a handful of odds and sods compilations, but not until now has there been an attempt to assemble a definitive Bad Brains retrospective. That new CD, Banned in D.C.: Bad Brains Greatest Riffs (a tongue-in-cheek title if you ever saw one), does the job very well, serving up 21 classic tracks, and one unreleased rarity.
Formed in 1979 by jazz fusion guitar ace Dr. Know, along with singer H.R., bassist Daryl Jenifer, and drummer Earl Hudson, and named after a Ramones song, Bad Brains took the punk world by storm from 1980 to 1983, largely through very independent, underground means. During that period, they put out one classic seven-inch single, a debut album that was available on cassette only, and one well-produced album. That single, the blistering “Pay to Cum”, leads off the CD, and is the album’s biggest treat for fans, marking the first time the original vinyl version has ever appeared on CD. One of the most explosive debut punk songs ever recorded, it’s 90 seconds of lightning-paced, marblemouthed insanity. “I make my decisions with precision / Lost inside this manned collision / Just to see what is to be perfectly my fantasy”, spits H.R., the words barely discernable, but what you do hear at the end is a surprisingly positive message, their own mission statement as a band, echoing the “PMA” (positive mental attitude) the band adopted soon after they embraced the Rastafari religion: “A peace together, a piece apart / A piece of wisdom from our hearts”.
Only two songs from that first cassette release have been included (“I”, “F.V.K. (Fearless Vampire Killers)”, most likely because of the album’s brutal production, which, while sounding incendiary and sweat-drenched, is a bit too muddy to bear, even coming from a hardcore band as this. Many alternate versions of the songs from that first album have been wisely chosen instead; from the great 1983 album Rock for Light, produced by Ric Ocasek, we have “Sailin’ On” and the brilliant “Banned in D.C.”, “Regulator” is from the Black Dots compilation, and the brilliant, jazz-meets-reggae “I Luv I Jah” comes from the Omega Sessions EP, recorded in 1980.
After an extended hiatus following Rock for Light, the band regrouped, and came back in superb form with the 1986 classic I Against I. Boasting more of a metal guitar sound, it might not have been as experimental as their early recordings, but its brilliant melding of punk and metal was more than enough to turn heads. “Re-Ignition”, included here, features a superb vocal performance by H.R., whose astonishingly versatile voice shows jaw-dropping range, something that the likes of Mike Patton and Serj Tankian would emulate years later. “Sacred Love” is a fascinating track, if only for the fact that H.R.’s vocals were recorded over the phone, as he was in jail at the time for marijuana possession. The album’s title track, the band’s greatest song, has been left off, in favor of the original 1980 version from The Omega Sessions, and it turns out to be the right choice, as the original is far more intense, more punk than metal. Its chorus still gives the listener chills to this day: “It’s the same old story / No factual glory / I against I against I against I against I / HOO!“.
The album isn’t arranged chronologically, but more like a lovingly-assembled mixtape by a diehard fan, the first half of the CD focusing strictly on the hardcore punk, the second half offering a look at Bad Brains’ more experimental side. It’s that last half that proves to be the most revelatory for newcomers: you’ve got the grinding funk-metal of “Soul Craft” (from 1989’s Quickness), the dub of the 1982 rarity “I and I Survive” and Rock for Light‘s “The Meek”, the straight reggae of “I Luv I Jah” and 1989’s “The Prophet’s Eye”. It’s that fascinating contrast in musical styles that makes Bad Brains so relevant even today. Bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fishbone tried to carry on in the same tradition, but in the end, barely managed to sound as fresh and innovative as Bad Brains did when they were at their peak. With its near-perfect mix of classic album tracks, rare singles, and outtakes, Banned in D.C.: Bad Brains Greatest Riffs is a great place for a curious listener to start.